AIN AL-TAMR, Iraq - The forlorn scenes in the ancient Al-Ukhaidir fortress tell of a government force in deep disarray. Flies circle beneath its high ceilings, above dozens of demoralized men who pass the day sleeping on dusty stone floors.
Until late June, this eighth-century redoubt in the Shiite south of Iraq had been a tourist and heritage site. Now the remnants of the 9th Brigade shelter within its walls.
These men have no pressing duties, even at a time of Iraq’s grave need. Instead, more than 300 miles from posts they had been ordered to defend, they huddled around visitors to describe an embarrassing retreat.
“We were sold, it was a sellout,” said one of the enlisted men, as a crowd of his fellow guards nodded in agreement. “Everyone here was willing to fight.”
The account of the 9th Brigade of Iraq’s border guards, confirmed by an official who witnessed many of the events, is a portrait of generals unfit to lead in war and of mismanagement, incompetence and ultimately treachery under the patronage of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
In early June, as militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, stormed through the north, Iraq’s security forces crumbled. Some soldiers and police officers shed their uniforms and bolted. Others were captured or changed sides.
But what was sometimes labeled cowardice or treason in the rank and file was often nothing of the sort, members of the border forces said in interviews in recent days. In the case of the 9th Brigade, at least, its members insisted that they were eager to fight but were undermined by high commanders who failed to provide border forces with water and food, causing the brigade to abandon positions in the searing desert heat.
Two critical border crossings, Qaim and Waleed, slipped from government control last month, and large stretches of open desert along the Syrian border have not been patrolled since the 9th Brigade withdrew more than a week ago, border guards said. The collapse gave ISIL unchallenged cross-border movement.
The Iraqi government claims that Waleed is back in government hands. Border guards say more troops will be sent across the desert to reinforce the border soon.
But the bitter experiences of the 9th Brigade, as told by its members, showed the force to be so undercut by cronyism that it was able to fight for less than two weeks before it descended into a venomous internal dispute.
Members of border-guard units said the breakdown is especially galling because after years of Western training and funding, and the commitment of the enlisted men who staked their lives on Iraq’s young government, it was senior officers who failed.
The odyssey from fresh combatants to dispirited mutineers began three weeks ago, after ISIL fighters seized Mosul and rolled toward Tikrit.
The 9th Brigade is part of the border guards’ 4th Division in Basra. Inspired by the call to arms against Sunni militants by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani on June 13, they danced with weapons in ceremonies, chanting that they would prevail. Many of the ceremonies were attended by journalists in Basra and Maj. Gen. Ali Waham al-Maliki, the division commander.
The brigade left Basra on June 14 with the important mission of reinforcing Qaim, its officers said. The troops had only the food and water they carried. Daytime temperatures hovered near 120.
Several officers said the system the Interior Ministry had devised to provision its forces was suited for peacetime, and predictably failed in war. They said it relied on contracts with businesses that would deliver supplies to the troops’ main garrisons. But as the border-police convoys headed for territory under militant influence or control, the vendors would not follow.
“When the conditions were not good, and there was no security, they did not provide water and food by the contract,” said a border-police colonel, who asked that his name be withheld.
By June 17, the brigade was in position around Qaim, with hopes of blocking ISIL fighters’ free passage to and from Syria. But the brigade’s supplies were so depleted the troops could barely fight. Its members said they were given only a small piece of cake and about 10 ounces of water a day.
Morale sank further, brigade members said, because another unit in Qaim had already run out of water and food, prompting the 9th Brigade to share its meager stores.
Moreover, the local people refused to help, police officers said, either because they had sided with ISIL or were afraid, and did not want to risk the militants’ wrath.
With supplies almost gone, the brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Sadiq Rasheed Abdilal, left Qaim to complain to senior officers, his troops said. They have not heard from him since. The troops said he had been arrested and his mobile phone switched off.
Officers on the brigade staff declined to discuss their commander’s whereabouts.
One colonel offered only that he left for “business in Baghdad.” A spokesman for the 4th Division said that Abdilal remained at work, but refused to provide a way to reach him.
On June 22, the troops said, they received an abrupt order to abandon Qaim and head to Waleed. They said they were astounded, because Qaim was essential to Iraq’s defense.
Their convoy set off at 5 a.m., without water or food, on an 11-hour journey across open desert and insurgent territory during the hottest time of day.
They were ambushed once, and one of the troops was wounded, they said. Their officers became lost, and reached Waleed only after meeting a federal police unit that stopped them as they headed in the wrong direction, the troops said.
After arriving at Waleed, they found the 4th Brigade, and pleaded for water and food, the troops said.
The next morning, they said, two generals showed up separately. One of them was their division commander, Gen. Maliki, who was accompanied by a video team. He tried to give water to the parched troops while recording the distribution, several people present said.
The troops refused to accept it, they said, and demanded to know why he had failed to supply them and why he had pulled them from Qaim.
Some of them made a show of chambering rounds in their assault rifles and shouldering rocket-propelled grenades, they said, and chased Gen. Maliki away.
A member of the same tribe as the prime minister, Gen. Maliki had formerly served in Amara as a senior officer in Iraq’s security forces. He left in disgrace in 2008 after being accused of providing government weapons to the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia that opposed Western and Iraqi troops.
He was granted a new command after receiving help from Sheikh Salam al-Maliki, a member of Parliament and a leader in the same Bani Malik tribe, who escorted Gen. Maliki in the capital to lobby for a job.
“Four years ago, I went with him to visit Lt. Gen. Aboud Kanbar, who was commander in chief of Baghdad’s Operation Command, and I asked him to give him a position,” Sheikh Maliki said.
An official familiar with brigade’s preparations said Gen. Maliki lacked the skills or character to lead. As ISIL advanced, the officer said, the general had been more interested in arranging patriotic ceremonies for television than in organizing his units for battle or ensuring they had food, water and fuel.
“The commander back then did not realize the importance of those elements,” said the official, who asked that his name be withheld to protect him from retaliation. “He was only interested in being interviewed to gain reputation. He lacked experience and did not accept any advice.”
Gen. Maliki could not be reached for comment. An aide who answered the general’s mobile phone said he was unavailable. Messages left at the Interior Ministry for two days were not returned.
After Gen. Maliki’s visit, the 9th Brigade began to disintegrate, with troops loading themselves onto their trucks and leaving pell-mell.
Gen. Maliki fled to a position down the road. Many of his troops pursued him there, and demonstrated outside the building he stopped in, firing in the air, according to a border guard who was there.
Another contingent chased the head of Iraq’s border guards, Lt. Gen. Hussein al-Awadi, to a headquarters used by a commando unit, they said, and briefly cornered him there.
“Everyone was cursing him and threatening to kill him,” said a noncommissioned officer who participated in the confrontation.
That contingent of the brigade’s remnants then drove toward Karbala, he said, to discover that Awadi had told forces defending the city that ISIL had defeated the 9th Brigade and would attack wearing border-police uniforms.
A standoff ensued before the border police convinced the checkpoint that they were not militants.
“We were about to get killed when we reached that checkpoint,” the noncommissioned officer said. “Death was a few seconds away.”
Once inside Karbala, part of the brigade reformed. Local authorities invited them to move to a cement factory and the fortress.
Only after a correspondent for Al-Hurra television reported on the parched troops’ arrival, they said, did they receive adequate supplies, donated by the residents of Ain al-Tamr and Karbala.
“The people gave them moral support,” said the correspondent, Iman Bilal, “and asked them to get some rest.”